An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for December, 2011

Blocked Out

Much wishful thinking exists in Mormon circles about shortening the 3-hour Sunday meeting block to two hours. Dropping the Sunday School hour is the most common suggestion.

The original idea behind the 3-hour block was to save travel time and expense for members not living within easy walking distance of meetinghouses. Auxiliary activities were to be conducted on a monthly basis. Since Mormons have never bought into the idea that less is more, monthly activities for YM/YW activities—at least in Utah wards—have expanded to a weekly basis. In many wards from two to four enrichment activities each month fill Relief Society sisters’ calendars although attendance at all is not mandatory—except, of course, for the RS presidency. So much for saving time and travel.

I do think the powers-that-be got it wrong when they clumped all auxiliary meetings and sacrament meeting into a Sunday block. What they should have done was drop sacrament meeting. The old 90- minute Sunday School meeting schedule consisted of a half hour for sacrament service, short talks and hymn practice, followed by age-grouped classes. Sacrament meeting was redundant after people had already taken the sacrament in the morning. And as for the SM talks—if members don’t get the message in 30 minutes of worship service followed by an hour of class instruction, something is wrong that another 90 minutes will not fix.

I suggest a Sabbath schedule of Sunday School in the morning followed by family time at home. Congregational hymns were much more musical in the days when we practiced singing on Sunday mornings. Class time could be gender as well as age segregated for those who find Priesthood and Relief Society more useful than Gospel Doctrine class—the lessons really aren’t that different. Wards would find it much easier to staff Primary for one-hour sessions. Retention rate of young adults might improve if kids weren’t subjected to three hours of sitting with arms folded every Sunday. And members might leave church on Sunday feeling uplifted instead of exhausted.

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Pastor-in-Chief

A recent poll shows a vast majority of American voters believe their president needs to believe in God. Apparently most Americans equate wisdom and morality with belief in God—a Christian version of God, of course. A candidate known to pray to Allah, the Goddess, or the Great Unknown would likely lose to Bernie Madoff in an American election—assuming, of course, that convicted felons are allowed to run for president.

Speaking of convicted felons, I taught at Utah State Prison for five years and found that most of the inmates believed in God—but I wouldn’t have wanted any of them for president.

Apparently, most American don’t recall much about history—even recent history. The two most overtly religious presidents within the last 40 years were Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush—neither of whom had a stellar presidency. And the economy soared under that commandment-breaking rascal, Bill Clinton.

Maybe God doesn’t reward our country based on our president’s religious beliefs. Maybe God feels we get what we deserve if we choose a leader based on his or her professed religious devotion rather than leadership qualities and record of accomplishment.

What Do You Think?

A recent blog by Tierza at Mormon Expressions deals with the problem of telling children about Santa. Tierza relates the Santa question to later questions her children will ask about religion and God.

I immediately agreed with the author’s solution—ask the child what she thinks. Upon reflection, however, I recall that “What do you think?” was essentially the answer my mother gave to my 8-year-old self—and it didn’t satisfy. I knew what I thought—and what I thought wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted positive affirmation that my thoughts were wrong—that Santa really existed—North Pole, reindeer, elves, and all.

I entertained doubts about some of the things I heard at church throughout my teens and early 20s. But— when my first child arrived, I needed certainty that I would have the help and guidance necessary to raise this perfect child. The Church provided that. Every week lessons and talks testified that God lives, loves me and my children, and answers every righteous prayer. It was a great strength in an unsure world.

In later years I’m inclined to think the testimonies heard at church are much like the positive affirmations well-meaning parents give to children about Santa—the difference being that people testifying of religious truths actually believe what they tell others.

Belief in Santa makes children happy. Belief in religious teachings comforts and strengthens many adults. Does it matter if the things we believe are literally true?

Aesthetics and Worship

“What attracted you to Catholicism?” I asked my brother who is contemplating baptism into that faith. He answered thoughtfully: “The beauty of the liturgy, the pageantry, the tradition of combining art and ceremony with worship. Protestant churches are stark and bare—empty.”

Dooby’s answer made me think of the temples and churches humans have constructed for worship throughout history. From Angkor Wat in Cambodia to gothic cathedrals in Europe to simple Shaker meetinghouses in New England to sacred mountains in many lands, humans have equated beauty with worship.

I have not attended a Catholic service—probably for fear of not knowing what to do. But, I have attended Episcopal services and found the liturgy quite beautiful and inspiring of reverence.

I sometimes attend services at the Salt Lake Unitarian Church for the wit and wisdom of the Reverend Tom Goldsmith and for the music. The paid music director, an accomplished pianist and composer, plays a variety of music—classical, jazz, popular, even hymns to complement the sermons. The choir, under his direction, can raise goose bumps with their performances. When he conducts a children’s choir, the kids have fun and the audience enjoys. I always leave feeling uplifted. The old Zen Center in Salt Lake had a classic Japanese style with candles, incense, and sometimes flowers giving an aura of peace to the Zendo. (The group recently relocated, and I haven’t seen the new facility yet).

The evangelical churches where our sons worship generally are not given to displays of beautiful art or music. When we attended Christmas Eve services with our older son’s family last year, I nearly wept at the beauty of singing “Silent Night” in the darkened sanctuary with each member of the congregation holding a lighted candle.

With one exception, beauty is lacking in Mormon worship. Chapels are bland, cookie cutter sameness—inside and out. Congregational singing drags. In most wards instrumental or vocal performances provide opportunities for young members to perform, but do little to elevate the congregation’s appreciation.

One element of beauty I do find when I attend my home ward is the warmth of friendship among members. Fellowship is fostered by assigning members to attend within boundaries which keep wards relatively small and members living within the same general area.

Camaraderie thrives within these borders. If only we could have beautiful music, uplifting architecture, and articulate sermons to match.

Change of Heart

When I called to wish my brother, Dooby, a happy 68th birthday on Sunday, I thought I’d reached a wrong number when he said he’d just returned from church.

“So where did you go to church?” I asked, expecting to hear a smart remark.

“St. Olafs. I’ve been going nearly every Sunday for almost a year and have been taking instruction on Catholicism. I’m thinking of being baptized.”

I glanced outside to see if a flaming meteor was zooming toward Earth or possibly the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse unleashing disaster. My brother has been atheist most of his life, although he sometimes joins his wife on Buddhist meditation retreats. The last time I saw him, he was reading Carl Jung. I don’t know why Dooby has reversed direction on religion. George says it’s because Doob is getting older and closer to the end.

Dooby’s revelation made me think of friends and acquaintances who have changed religious views— although not necessarily their affiliation. One Catholic friend has moved to agnosticism and another to ecumenicalism. A friend who raised her children to be devout Lutherans has adopted pantheism. The daughter of a friend was recently baptized into the Anglican faith after spending most of her adult life as a Buddhist. When I attend services at the Unitarian Church or Zen Center, I always meet former Mormons. And most Mormon wards I’ve attended have older converts or returnees to the faith.

I don’t know how widespread a change of faith is in later years, or the reasons for it. For most people, agnosticism is less comforting than a belief in an afterlife, but not all changes I’ve seen have been to a faith that promises Heaven.  My guess is that many older people lose confidence in their religious traditions when life experiences don’t align with the teachings of their faith. Bad things happen to good people—and good things happen to the apparently undeserving. If a person’s faith is based on the idea that we can prevent misfortune by particular religious observances, that person is bound to experience disillusionment when life disappoints.

I suspect that the spiritual philosophy which motivates, guides and comforts a person is highly individualistic. Maybe God knows that. Maybe that’s why we have so many different religions.

Moral Issues

One moral issue on which I hope to see the Mormon Church take a stand is Utah’s air pollution. The air along the Wasatch Front is unhealthy to breathe for much of the winter because of small particle pollution—particles smaller than 2.5 microns.

Utah doctors, who estimate our air pollution causes 1,000 to 2,000 deaths in Utah each year, have formed a coalition, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, and have filed a lawsuit against Rio Tinto/Kennecott Copper, the largest polluter in the area.

Utah’s Division of Air Quality recently approved lifting a federal ban on air pollution limits in the state to allow RTK, which accounts for 30% of the air pollution in the area, to expand its operations. Board members of the DAQ are appointees. Five of the eleven represent industry. One doctor and one representative of an environmental group sit on the board. The remaining four members are elected or appointed government officials. Mining and other polluting industries make big donations to political campaigns of government officials. The payoff for their investment is state regulatory policies designed for the polluters’ benefit.

Sadly, too many Utahns see environmental issues as a political attempt to infringe upon constitutional rights. Since nearly 60% of Utahns, according to a recent poll, consider themselves Mormons, it would be helpful for the Church to take a public stand on the need for Utah to clean up the air along the Wasatch Front. Possibly Church influence is strong enough to encourage Utahns to demand elected officials represent them rather than moneyed interests.

Taking a stand for clean air is a natural for a church with a longstanding health code. What could be more moral than protecting the health of children—including the unborn? 

Utahns should not quietly submit to filthy, disease-producing air that causes asthma and other respiratory diseases and contributes to cancer and heart disease. Church leadership could show Utah Mormons the need to  exert influence upon state and local government to promote a healthy environment in which to live, work, and raise families.

Inner Change

As a Mormon, I find the Calvinist doctrine of salvation by grace for the elect unappealing. It seems unfair that a person’s good behavior on earth doesn’t count. Not all birthright Mormons feel this way, of course. Todd, the leader of my first Buddhist sangha, said he left Mormonism because, “I could never be good enough, no matter how hard I tried.”

Our older son had a similar experience with Mormonism. A Calvinist church, which taught the doctrine of salvation by grace, reassured him of God’s love for mortals who fall short of perfection.

Our younger son, the opposite of his brother, flaunted authority and broke rules almost from day one. Mormon concepts of being good in order to merit blessings and avoid punishments struck him as manipulation by those in power. Oddly enough, he followed his brother into Calvinism. None of us thought it would last.

For several years, I’ve tried to understand the appeal of Calvinism to our sons. I recently gleaned some understanding from Eric Metaxas’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis in 1945. The foreword by Timothy J. Keller has the clearest definition of grace I’ve read. Keller dismisses as cheap grace the concept of being saved by God’s love no matter how a person lives. He defines as legalism the concept of being saved by laws and works: “God loves you because you have pulled yourself together and are trying to live a good, disciplined life.” Keller would likely place the Mormon doctrine, “by grace we are saved after all we can do,” (2 Ne. 25:23) in this category.

Keller credits Bonhoeffer with teaching costly grace—the idea that we are saved by grace alone, but “if we have truly understood and believed the gospel, it will change what we do and how we live.” True believers love and serve God out of gratitude for what they have already been given, not for what they expect to receive.

Like Mormons who believe those of the lineage of Israel will hear and accept the gospel message, Calvinists tend to believe that those elected to salvation will heed and live the gospel. Both my sons found the idea of having already received grace rather than needing to earn it appealing. Both have changed their lives—not from fear of losing salvation or missing blessings, but from love and gratitude to God who loves them unconditionally.

Certainly, I have heard many sincere testimonies from Mormons who have joined the Church and changed their lives. I believe a teaching that causes inner change in a person, which is manifest in outward behavior, is a true teaching for that person.

My own inner change has come mostly from Buddhist teachings of acceptance, mindfulness, and connectedness. Accepting myself as I am has made me more tolerant of others. Being mindful of the present moment helps slow me down to savor this life and to value the relationships I enjoy now rather than those I might expect to find in Heaven. Recognizing my connectedness to other people and to the natural world makes me want to for care the earth and all its inhabitants.

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